UPDATE (3/14/2023): An NCAA blog post from January confirms that there are still no verifiable perfect brackets. Last year, none of the millions of brackets in ESPN's popular contest were even perfect through the first round, with all brackets busted by the tournament's first Friday.
Each year, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball seasons end with a massive 68-team tournament. The tournament has earned the nickname “March Madness” because of its upset-fueled unpredictability.
The NCAA estimates people fill out 60 to 100 million brackets each year in an attempt to predict all 63 games to win money or bragging rights over friends, coworkers, family and strangers alike.
The last perfect men’s bracket the NCAA could document this year fell during the second day of the first round, after just 28 games. The first round alone is 32 games.
Has anyone ever filled out a perfect bracket that was documented?
No, no one has ever picked a perfect NCAA men’s basketball bracket via three of the most popular tournament contests on the NCAA's website, ESPN and Yahoo! Sports. It’s unlikely anyone ever will pick a perfect bracket.
WHAT WE FOUND
The NCAA says it has never found a verifiable perfect bracket for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, despite searching for years through major bracket game archives and news reports.
“We've closely tracked about 20 to 25 million online brackets per year at a half-dozen major [bracket prediction] games since 2016 using public leaderboards in combination with direct reporting and information gathering with those games,” the NCAA said in a blog post. “Prior to 2016, we've relied on those games' reports as well as online archives to get the best information available.”
Two of the largest bracket games, ESPN and Yahoo! Sports, confirm they’ve never had a perfect men’s bracket on their service. An ESPN spokesperson told VERIFY in an email that there has never been a perfect ESPN bracket for the men’s or women’s tournament. A March 18 Yahoo! Sports article confirming there were no more perfect 2022 brackets on its service said it was still “waiting for that elusive first-ever perfect NCAA tournament bracket.”
It’s incredibly unlikely anyone has even picked an unverified, undocumented perfect bracket at any point in the tournament’s history dating back to 1985, when the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
A person would have to pick 63 games correctly to have a perfect bracket. Mathematicians have calculated that the odds of getting 63 games correctly by coinflip is one in 9.2 quintillion. Written out, that’s 9,223,372,036,854,775,808. Doing something one quintillion times is equivalent to one billion people doing something one billion times. That means if all 7.7 billion people on Earth each picked one billion brackets, all totally unique from each other, there would still be 1.5 quintillion unique brackets no one had picked.
According to DePaul University, you have better odds of picking six people at random on the street and all of them having the same birthday as you. You are millions of times more likely to win the Powerball jackpot at 1 in 292.2 million odds.
But many people aren’t picking their brackets by coinflip, they’re picking their bracket based on their knowledge of basketball and the tournament’s history. How that changes the odds depends on the mathematician and how they calculate it.
Jeff Bergen from DePaul University said that a person picking based on this knowledge improves their chances to 1 in 120 billion. The University of Illinois says an expert’s odds improve to about 1 in 3 billion. FiveThirtyEight says if a person were to pick a bracket exactly as its computer model would, then based on win probabilities that person would have somewhere between a 1 in 7.5 billion chance and a 1 in 1.5 billion chance at a perfect bracket.
The furthest the NCAA has found a bracket stayed perfect was when a person’s 2019 bracket correctly predicted the tournament’s first 49 games. A bracket that correctly predicts its first 49 games would stay perfect until the second game of the Sweet 16, when there are just 14 games left in the tournament.
According to the NCAA, the next best perfect record to start a tournament was a Yahoo! Sports bracket that picked each of the first 39 games of 2017 correctly.
The NCAA says that in the past eight years of its bracket prediction game, the average winner has picked a total of 49.8 games correctly throughout the entire tournament. The winners in 2015 and 2017 picked the most correct games: 54. The person who picked the first 49 games correctly also went on to pick a total of 54 games correctly, but his bracket wasn’t the winning bracket that year. His bracket was beat by a bracket that picked 53 games correctly because games later in the tournament are worth more in the bracket prediction games’ scoring systems.
The NCAA could find no other verifiable bracket that was perfect through the tournament’s first two rounds.
VERIFY could not find an instance of a perfect women’s bracket, either. This year, the longest-surviving women’s bracket made it to 35 games before it was busted, three games into the tournament’s second round.
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